Britain’s most southerly bus stop…

… and other west Cornwall travels.

Thursday 8th August 2019

IMG_6670.jpgHaving travelled up to Cape Wrath last month to visit mainland Britain’s most northerly bus terminus I thought it was time to take a look at the most southerly bus stop.

It’s located at The Green, Lizard, just north of Lizard Point itself, where First Kernow’s route L1 terminates.Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.33.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.35.20.pngRoute L1 runs almost hourly from Helston down to The Lizard (there are a couple of two-hour gaps in the morning timetable) with most journeys projected back to start from Redruth Station’s Platform 3.

IMG_6494.jpgThat’s where I began my travels, having taken GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper from Paddington on Monday evening.

The train arrived on schedule into Redruth at 07:22 giving a generous connection time to include breakfast before the 08:00 departure on route L1, except Redruth’s one of those towns that remains firmly closed at that time of the morning. Not an open café or coffee shop to be had.

The upside was it gave time to meet Redruth Station’s gorgeous friendly resident cat, Hector….IMG_6511.jpgIMG_6519.jpg….. and admire the signs directing passengers to the bus stop outside the station ‘for Helston & Culdrose’, quaintly called Platform 3 complete with a ‘3’ in former BR corporate style.

IMG_6441.jpgIMG_6446.jpgIMG_7158.jpgThis is from the time the innovative Truronian bus company branded the route The Helston Branch Line in the 1990s which is still displayed on the bus stop.IMG_6449.jpg

National Rail show bus departures to Helston from Redruth and there are fares in the rail database to ‘Helston Bus’ (way below First Bus current prices I’m sure) but you can’t buy one from the ticket office or from a ticket vending machine so it’s all a bit anachronistic as usual with these things.

Truronian sold out to First Bus back in 2008 and it’s only recently with the reinvigorated First Kernow that the smart new Lizard branding (another Best Impressions masterpiece) and new route number L1 have arrived.

My itinerary included a visit yesterday to the Helston Railway itself where a dedicated band of volunteers toiling away for the last fifteen years have amazingly reopened about a mile and a quarter of track south towards Helston from the hamlet of Prospidnick.

IMG_7053.jpgIMG_7050.jpgIMG_7051.jpgThere are ambitious plans to extend the line further south but it’s going to take a long time and much more hard work.

In the meantime the railway is open two or three days a week and was proving very popular yesterday with families enjoying their visit of a half an hour’s round trip including time at the southern end of the line at Truthall Halt.

IMG_7062.jpgIMG_7063.jpgIMG_7060.jpgThere’s the usual shop and cafe in a former DMU located at Prospidnick…..IMG_7047.jpg….which is a twenty minute walk from Crowntown (along an overgrown footpath and country lane) where the two hourly route 38 passes on its run between Helston and Camborne so careful planning is needed to visit the railway by bus and fit in with both bus and train times. I think I was the only one yesterday morning.

But it’s worth it to see Prospidnick Halt station in the middle of a wood on a narrow viaduct and admire the work of the volunteers.IMG_7046.jpgThe Helston branch left the mainline just west of Camborne; it closed to passengers in 1962 so for the past 57 years the bus has been the only way of reaching Helston and south on to The Lizard peninsula.IMG_6507.jpgJourney time from Redruth to The Lizard on the L1 is 83 minutes including eight minutes stand time in Helston. The 08:00 journey took eight of us from Redruth as far as Helston and a similar number south from there with most alighting in the village of Mullion.

One passenger alighted at the scenic Poldhu Cove bay ….IMG_6527.jpg…. but only one other passenger joined me all the way down to The Lizard. I’m sure the journey is much busier on a schoolday and I noticed a double deck in Lizard branding on another journey indicating school children are a key market for this route.IMG_6726.jpgBritain’s most southerly bus stop is next to The Green with surrounding gift shops and eateries. The arrangements for where buses stand and wait seemed confused with the driver of my incoming journey stopping alongside The Green (photographed below) but the driver of the next journey reversing alongside the stop itself as photgraphed above.IMG_6654.jpgI had just enough time for breakfast and a brisk walk down to the lighthouse and Lizard Point itself before returning to catch the next bus back which operates via the hamlets of Ruan Minor and Kuggar (with nice seating in the shelter) …IMG_6731.jpg… and then the outward route in reverse to Helston and Redruth. It became a very busy journey with all seats taken and we arrived back in Helston fifteen minutes late necessitating a change to my original planned itinerary – this happens a lot in Cornwall – experience has taught me to allow at least a 15 minute buffer for late running across Kernow land but I still ignore my own advice sometimes with the consequential need to replan on the hoof.

I decided to catch the already mentioned two-hourly route 38 from Helston to Camborne and in contrast to the L1, I was the only passenger on the entire 34 minute journey leaving Helston at 11:57. (I travelled on the same journey again yesterday after visiting the railway and there were six others on board).IMG_6757.jpgCamborne bus station is adjacent to First Kernow’s main offices and bus garage for Cornwall.

IMG_6765.jpgIMG_7066.jpgIMG_6780.jpgIt’s pretty basic with lots of signs telling passengers to stand behind the barriers, and there’s staff coming and going through a door marked PRIVATE, but otherwise not much to report.IMG_6770.jpg

One bright spot in an otherwise somewhat depressing waiting area with no seating is a bright map and timetable display.IMG_6768.jpgI also noticed the low flour easy access arrangement from the bus station saw-tooth layout doesn’t allow for the door behind the front wheels layout on the smart new Optare Solos.IMG_6783.jpg

My next journey was another quiet run on the four-journeys-a-day route 39A (note the incorrect Lizard branded bus photographed below) across to Penzance via a delightful rural route through lovely Cornish villages such as Relubbus, Goldsithney and Rosudgeon on the B3280 as well as a double run to serve Perranthnoe.

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Penzance bus station was given a makeover a couple of years ago and is now a very pleasant place to wait with a functional shelter and departure bays.IMG_6785First Kernow have done a fantastic job displaying maps and timetables in the shelter… IMG_6830.jpgIMG_6831.jpg… and the Council have included electronically displayed upcoming train and bus departures.IMG_6832.jpgIMG_6833.jpgIt’s a shame the dedicated First Bus Travel Shop has closed …IMG_6839.jpg…. but it probably made financial sense to utilise the adjacent Visitor Information Centre which has a great display of timetables and yet another helpful network map.IMG_6788.jpgIMG_6786.jpg

Despite many previous visits to Penzance I’d never fitted in a walk out to nearby St Michael’s Mount so put that right on Tuesday by catching the Atlantic Coaster branded open-top route A2 to Marazion.IMG_6880.jpgThe A2 continues to St Ives where it morphs into an A3 around the coast to Lands End changing again there into an A1 to complete the circuit back to Penzance. The full circular ride takes 3 hours, 40 minutes and many people make a day of it breaking the round journey up into bite sized chunks.IMG_6885.jpgI’m pleased to have ticked off St Michael’s Mount which was very busy during the period when low tide allows access and despite the excellent bus service there were all too many cars parked in fields on the edge of Marazion.IMG_6881.jpgIMG_6882.jpgMarazion is also served by the hourly route U4 one of four routes First Kernow run for the University of Exeter’s campus at Penryn just north of Falmouth.IMG_6899.jpgAnd commendably these run during college holidays and are popular with tourists and locals.

I took the U4 back to Helston where I finished off Tuesday’s travels with an early evening ride on the last journey of the day on route L2 from Helston to the south west corner of the Lizard peninsula at Coverack – which is particularly scenic as the road descends to the bay around triple narrow hairpin bends …IMG_6991.jpg… and St Keverne. We took about half a dozen workers home and brought back about the same number of tourists on the return journey. The bus arrived about 15 minutes late into Helston – and didn’t make the time up during the journey or back again. It was an incorrectly Atlantic Coaster branded bus.IMG_6982.jpgThere are only six journeys a day on the L2 four of which continue to or start from Truro.

I stayed overnight in Helston and after yesterday’s enjoyable morning on the Helston Railway and taking the 38 again into Camborne I took a ride on one of the two bus services between Camborne and Redruth which take a circuitous route around the residential areas between the two towns.IMG_7071.jpgRoute 46 runs hourly and takes around an hour to reach Redruth having headed westwards first, then north and then south (repeating a few times) as it generally meanders eastwards. I reckon a detailed map of this and sister hourly route 47 would be a great help to demistify where the buses actually go – the network map isn’t much help as illustrated by an enlarged extract below. There are maps showing “where to catch your bus in Camborne” and maps showing limits of zone tickets, but there really needs to be a town bus map showing roads traversed. (Update….see PS at the end of the blog).Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.59.54.pngThe 46 continues every two-hours beyond Redruth to Truro via a lovely rural route including Gwennap, Perranwell and Devoran.

I alighted in Carnon Downs, about ten minutes south of Truro on the Falmouth road, to catch that part of route L2 (from Truro) to Helston I didn’t travel on Tuesday. This includes some incredibly narrow country lanes for a double decker to negotiate, especially in the Stithians area.IMG_7121.jpgThe bus was already six minutes late leaving Carnon Downs and negotiating traffic on these narrow lanes meant twelve minutes late arriving into Helston just in time to see my planned connection on route 35A to Falmouth departing – will I never learn!

Instead I caught the eastern end of route U4 from Helston across to the Penryn campus where it connects with the more frequent U1/U2 into Falmouth – except the U4 was ten minutes late and just as we pulled in, the connecting bus pulled away without letting passengers transfer as advertised.IMG_7139.jpgMore positively the Penryn campus bus stops are well laid out with clear signs indicating where to catch the various bus routes.IMG_7135.jpgIMG_7138.jpgThe U4 branded route is a later addition to join the original U1 and U2 routes as can be seen from the outdated and updated maps on the sides of the latest buses now in service.IMG_6838.jpgIMG_7022.jpgIMG_7154.jpgI headed back over to Redruth on a north westerly bound late running U2 which arrived into Redruth just as a T2 was leaving for Camborne and St Ives and despite two passengers jumping off the arriving U2 and frantically waving their arms at the T2 driver, he chose to ignore them and drive on.IMG_7159.jpg

I caught the T1 that followed about fifteen minutes later bound for Penzance and ended my Kernow bus travelling there before catching the Night Riviera sleeper train back to London arriving into Paddington early this morning.

Five reflections on the last couple of days’ travels:

1. Transforming Travel

Many of us mocked the totally inappropriate ‘Transforming Travel’ tag line First Bus used to describe themselves in the early 2000s. It was rightly derided. I remember travelling around Cornwall on buses which any bus operator should have been ashamed to have in their fleet. The photos below were taken between 2012 and 2014. No wonder Western Greyhound virtually wiped First Bus out of the County.Penzance - August 2014 049.jpgCornwall - October 2012 023.jpgNow travel truly has been transformed and after an incredible turnaround in vehicle investment a resurgent First Kernow are running an extremely modern fleet on which you feel proud to travel.

2. The route network has been simplified with core routes increased in frequency and attractively marketed. Routes T1 and T2 in particular now stand out as prime routes as do the U1-U4 university network. The excellent timetable book with colour coded maps for the whole County is readily available if you know where to look, although I’d like to see it placed on buses as Stagecoach do in the Lake District. It could usefully have more detailed town plans showing routes in places like Helston, Camborne and Redruth where the networks are confusing to understand. (Update- see PS at end of the blog)

3. First Kernow’s route branding has also come on leaps and bounds and is also now excellent and really stands out compared to how it looked a few years ago as shown below.Cornwall - October 2012 042.jpgDevon-Cornwall - August 2013 075.jpgBut much greater care is needed on vehicle allocation. As noted above, I saw an Atlantic Coaster on a Lizard L1 and another on an L2; as well as a red Tinner on a blue U4; a Lizard on a standard route 38. Because the brands are so high profile, these incorrect allocations cause confusion and undermine the whole branding.IMG_6923.jpgIMG_7130.jpg

4. Timekeeping is very susceptible to late running. This isn’t just summer traffic; nor just meeting traffic on narrow lanes and taking ages to pass; it includes time taken to deal with passenger queries and ticket issuing and is also a consequence in some cases of insufficient stand time between journeys. IMG_1400There are plans to coordinate First Kernow’s bus timetables with the new improved regular half-hourly GWR train service on the main line from December. If integrated timetables are the name of the game it needs a rethink of whether bus schedules are currently realistic, otherwise passengers are going to miss connections.

5. The prices charged by First Kernow are not cheap. The £15 day ticket (£13 on the App) is one of the most expensive in Britain. But the more you buy, the cheaper it gets with 2-days at a better value £18, three for a reasonable £23 and a bundle of five for just £30 or twenty for only £100. The latter are more designed for residents than short stay visitors and assume a bus passenger has cash flow of £100 available.IMG_7133.jpgThe most flexible yet top-secret ticket is the ‘Ride Cornwall’ which gives bus as well as train travel throughout the County. This ticket has had a recent chequered history – at one time it was anomalously cheaper than the bus only day ticket but due to First Bus refusing to advertise its existence, very few people were aware of it. Matters came to a head at the beginning of this summer with First Kernow no longer accepting ‘Ride Cornwall’ tickets until GWR (and Cross Country) increased the price, which they’ve now done to £18 for a day; and in a stingy move withdrawn previously available one-third off discounts with Railcards. This is a great shame bearing in mind the desire to integrate bus and trains across the County. There’s still no mention of it at all on any First Kernow printed literature (including a leaflet entitled ‘price & ticket guide’. or online; nor can I find a reference to it on GWR or Criss Country’s websites but full marks to Go-Ahead’s Plymouth Citybus, who also accept and issue it, and at least reference it under Tickets; Day Tickets; Other Tickets on their website.

You have to wonder whether bus and train companies are serious about modal integration when they completely fail to even mention such tickets, let alone promote their use.

Finally, it was a pleasure to once again enjoy west Cornwall by bus over the last couple of days. I hope the real and significant improvements continue in the coming months and years.IMG_6862.jpg

Roger French

PS I’m very grateful to both Chris and Paul who have been in touch since posting this blog to advise that town plans are available in the Cornwall Council produced public transport guide, which indeed they are, and I’m pleased to show an example of the Camborne and Redruth pages below…IMG_7170.jpgIMG_7172.jpg

Devon’s top circular bus and train tour is back

Sunday 7th July 2019

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Here’s a great way to spend five hours on a summer Sunday: enjoy one of the best circular journeys in Devon, if not the whole of Britain. It takes in three top rail lines and a brilliant bus route skirting a National Park.

The circular route can be based on either Exeter or Plymouth with the three train journeys in the circuit being the summer Sunday only route between Exeter and Okehampton (known as the GWR Dartmoor Line); the Tamar Valley Line from Gunnislake to Plymouth and the West Country main line from Plymouth back to Exeter including the infamous Dawlish Wall. The missing bit between Okehampton and Gunnislake is filled with the Sunday only 279 bus route, which after an absence of three years, I’m delighted to say, is back up and running again this summer thanks to funding from the Devon and Cornwall Community Rail Partnership. I couldn’t resist taking a ride around the circuit today to celebrate the 279’s return.

Even better this 125 mile circular route can be enjoyed for the price of a Devon Day Ranger at £13 for the trains (£8.20 Railcards) plus a bargain £3 for the 279 bus as a special concession rate for passengers holding rail tickets. Like the 271 yesterday, this route is deemed a ‘tourist route’ by Devon County Council and National Concessionary Passes are not valid (even though they are valid on routes 79 and 118 which cover the same route on Mondays to Saturdays).

IMG_E2762.jpgSadly the old Dartmoor Sunday Rover ticket which gave extra value by combining both bus and rail travel on journeys around and across Dartmoor was withdrawn after 2015 and hasn’t reappeared – and even better, in 2014 and 2015 it even included trains on the main line.

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If you want a Sunday morning lie-in take the 11:08 GWR departure from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton which arrives at 11:54 giving plenty of time to connect with the only departure on the 279 at 12:20 which continues beyond Tavistock through to Gunnislake.Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 10.29.03.pngBut it’s well worth taking the first train of the morning from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton at 09:04 arriving at 09:50 giving plenty of time to take a ride on the Dartmoor Railway heritage line where they often run a former Thumper train (on my previous visit) ….

IMG_7520.jpg…..or an eclectic mix of locomotive and carriages including a Brake Van which you can travel on with a great forward view when being pushed from behind and an amazingly friendly guard called Don who gave a running commentary as happened this morning on the 10:15 from Okehampton….IMG_2688.jpgIMG_2691.jpg ….and takes you to Meldon Viaduct and which is well worth a visit.

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IMG_2731.jpgAlternatively the Exeter to Okehampton train stops at Crediton and Sampford Courtenay stations along the way both of which are interesting stop-offs to explore.

Crediton station is on the Barnstaple line and has some lovely heritage signs and posters and is lovingly maintained.

IMG_E2998.jpgIMG_3010.jpgSampford Courtenay is one of Britain’s quirkiest stations; only open in the summer; sees just the four trains each way, each Sunday; has a grass covered platform; has no facilities whatsoever other than a bench seat; has a locked gate to the platform which the guard on the first train of the day unlocks and the guard on the last train of the day locks up. (Interestingly two passengers were waiting to access the station and board the train when we arrived this morning.)

IMG_2684.jpgAnd that’s about it for facilities. It’s about a four mile walk to Okehampton if you choose to get off at Sampford Courtenay – the photo below was from a previous visit.

IMG_7510Okehampton station itself is about a ten minute walk from the town centre but there’s a popular cafe in the station which does a brisk trade on a Sunday with rail enthusiasts, walkers and cyclists and there are stalls selling railway memorabilia for the heritage Dartmoor Railway.

It was great to see the GWR trains busy today – 30 passengers were on the first train and a good load was waiting to board the return journey to Exeter.IMG_2686.jpg

IMG_2810.jpgThe return of the 279 bus route after its three year absence is very welcome as not only does it make this circular tour possible but it’s a great scenic route in its own right.

IMG_2832.jpgThe timetable is fairly limited but the 12:20 journey to Gunnislake is ideal with train connections at both ends if you’re doing the circuit anti-clockwise from Exeter as are the two journeys from Gunnislake at 10:05 and 14:00, for a clockwise circuit, which connect with trains from Plymouth as well as at Okehampton (see timetable below).

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 19.03.57.pngGo-ahead owned Plymouth Citybus operates the route from its small depot in Callington. It follows the A386 from Okehampton towards Tavistock all along the western perimeter of Dartmoor save for a couple of deviations to the west to serve Bridestowe and Lydford.

The last time I travelled on this route (when it was numbered 187 rather than 279) was in the summer of 2015, when it was operated by First Bus and they still had a presence in this part of Devon. It wasn’t First Bus at their finest and not surprisingly they quit Devon soon affter this uninviting, unkept and filthy Dennis Dart appeared on what should be a lovely tourist route! An appropriate epitaph to the old style First Bus in Devon.

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DSCF8080.jpgIMG_3291.jpgThere were nine of us on the 12:20 journey this afternoon all doing the same round trip, which was quite an impressive turn out. Another passenger boarded just outside Okehampton and travelled to Tavistock. Our driver observed it’s the most he’s seen as no one travelled last time he did the trip. He’s based at Liskeard depot as no-one from Callington wants to do the Sunday rest day work containing the 279!

The former route 187 included a diversion to serve the tourist attraction of Morwellham Quay between Tavistock and Gunnislake. It’s a former copper mine, which is now a “working” museum (along the Beamish lines) including a fascinating train ride into one of the old mines. Sadly the updated 279 no longer serves this attraction but continues direct to Gunnislake arriving at 13:45 for the GWR train departure at 13:58 for Plymouth.

We made good time on the journey this afternoon and arrived into Tavistock with enough slack for a fifteen minute leg stretch pause in the bus station and even leaving there on time arrived Gunnislake five minutes early so there’s plenty of time to include Morwellham Quay on the way if desired.

IMG_2836.jpgOn a previous visit to Gunnislake station in Spring 2018 I noticed the old 187 timetable for Summer 2015 (its last year of operation) with its more frequent service was still on display in the bus shelter and I tweeted Plymouth CityBus to let them know. Frustratingly it was still there this afternoon and sadly there was no mention of the new 279 timetable.

IMG_2838.jpgIMG_2840.jpgThis is very unfortunate particularly as there was superb information at Okehampton in both the station and the authentic bus stop outside.

IMG_2687.jpgIMG_2771.jpgThe contrast couldn’t be more stark.

The Tamar Valley Line between Gunnislake and Plymouth is my favourite Devon branch line with its narrow twists and turns as it follows the valley down through the delightful villages of Calstock and Bere Alston. This section of the line was originally built as a narrow gauge railway to serve the extensive copper mines in the area so when it was upgraded to standard gauge it wasn’t surprising the train brushed against trees and bushes lining the tracks, and still does in places.

IMG_2237.jpgThe viaduct over the River Tamar at Calstock is just one of the spectacular sights on the journey….

IMG_2934.jpg….and it’s also worth looking out for the two ungated level crossings which are very unusual for a full size passenger rail line in regular use.

IMG_2918.jpgAt Bere Alston the train reverses back from the stub of the line (which used to continue to Tavistock and Okehampton) before continuing south down the valley to the wonderful Bere Ferrers (and note the ‘Beer Ferris’ spelling on the former signal box in the photograph below!).

IMG_2220.jpgNow here’s a station well worth stopping off at and having a look around if you have time.IMG_2222.jpg

IMG_2221.jpgNot only is the station itself done out in splendid heritage signs and posters but Chris Grove who lives in the former booking office owns the neighbouring land which he’s turned into a Heritage Centre with an eclectic mix of railway carriages, diesel locomotives, a yard crane, turntable, a fully working signal box controlling the adjacent track which although only 300 yards long can accommodate three engines running at the same time, as well as a model railway layout, exhibitions, memorabilia, paraphernalia and more.IMG_2223.jpgIt’s a fascinating place and if you’re really keen, Chris offers accommodation and meals in some of the carriages.IMG_2209.jpgI didn’t have time to visit today but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit when passing through last weekend and Chris was a great host.

IMG_2204.jpgCarrying on down the Tamar Valley the River becomes impressively wider as it’s joined by the River Tavy with the rail line bridging over the latter just before the rivers join.

IMG_2938.jpgThe line then continues under the Great Western main line with restricted views of the famous Royal Albert bridge behind the not so famous road bridge ….

IMG_2943.jpg….before the branch joins the main line itself just after St Budeaux Victoria Road (alongside St Budeaux Ferry Road on the main line). Continuing into Plymouth there are magnificent views of the Dockyard as this section of the tour comes to an end.

IMG_2946.jpgIt’s a summer Sunday afternoon, so expect the last leg of this circular trip to be busy; the main line ride from Plymouth to Exeter. I’ve taken many journeys back from the West Country on a Sunday afternoon and the train is invariably packed even before it leaves Cornwall. The Gunnislake train arrives into Plymouth at 14:43 with a handy fifteen minute connection on to the 14:58 GWR train back to Exeter St Davids arriving there at 15:57. However, this train comes up from Penzance and is notorious for being ‘rammed’.

This afternoon, I instead opted to take the next eastbound departure from Plymouth at 15:12 which is a GWR train crucially starting its London bound journey there so a much better chance of a decent seat.

IMG_2948.jpgIt arrived into Exeter at 16:07 just ten minutes later than the Penzance originating train did.

IMG_4722This final leg of the circular tour provides a lovely hour’s scenic ride through Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth before the crème de la crème, the gorgeous section of line through Dawlish.

After that it’s back into Exeter after a wonderful day in Devon.

However, I’m now heading on to Bristol and Cardiff for more bus and train travels tomorrow.

Roger French

PS It was great to meet blog reader David also doing this round trip today as well as Phil from Modern Railways magazine who was enjoying a return ride on the Gunnislake branch this afternoon.

PPS Just to let you know the great lengths I go to capture photographs for this blog included last weekend’s visit to Bere Ferrers Heritage Centre when Chris kindly offered for me to capture the GWR train coming into the station from a vantage point high up on one of his heritage signals – note the high viz, so it was perfectly safe for me to do that – indeed it was a great honour as Chris said no-one other than him had climbed up before!

Commuting with Zeelo

Friday 24th May 2019

There was a time if you fancied running a coach travel business you’d get yourself a coach or two (probably decent second-hand stock to begin with), pick up a school contract to run, get known among well-to-do local clubs and societies for those lucrative private hires and maybe run a small excursion programme.

Nowadays if you’re an aspiring travel entrepreneur you’ll get yourself some ‘angel investment’ backing, a friend who understands algorithms, a website and social media presence and a list of decent coach companies you can call on. You won’t be owning any coaches, renting a garage and employing drivers.

That’s exactly what Snap are doing to build a share of the express coach market which I tried out last October between London and Bristol and this morning I gave a try out of another new player in the ‘online-travel-with-no vehicles-of-their-own’ sector called Zeelo who’ve recently started a new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol.

According to their website Zeelo founders Sam Ryan and Barney Williams “didn’t understand why public transport options outside of cities were slow, crowded and too expensive”. Travelling to support their football team playing away matches turned out to be a right hassle.

So they teamed up with their friend Dani and “unlocked the power of data”. Dani built an algorithm for Sam and Barney “that understood when large groups of underserved people wanted to travel”.

Their travel-to-event business was born “transporting 750 like-minded fans to Wembley”. Unfortunately their team lost but that experience “was just the start” as the Zeelo website goes on to explain “that daily grind needed fixing, so they rolled out their commuting service, offering car users a viable stress free alternative to get to work”. Apparently “Zeelo is now loved by thousands of riders. By providing exceptional rider experience Zeelo has grown rapidly, but we’re just getting started. Join us on the journey.”

I couldn’t resist an invitation like that and was full of eager anticipation to join the growing band of happy commuters full of smiles over their laptops as they leave the daily grind behind.

All the more so as although the single ride fare of £7 for a peak hour trip from Newport to Bristol seemed reasonable enough I spotted on the Zeelo website a sign up offer of ten free rides by using the promotional codeword COMMUTE.

That was just as well as I then realised you’re not able to buy just one ride for £7, you have to spend a minimum of £70 on a ten-ride package which I wasn’t so keen on in the name of just a one-off research project for this blog, but I suppose it’s fair enough for a five-day a week regular commuter to buy a week’s travel in one hit and have the option of using any leftover rides with days missed in a following week.

This same bulk purchase of rides is the norm on Zeelo’s more bespoke commuter trips they’re promoting on their website to places like Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Gaydon, Ocado’s head office in Hatfield or to three private schools in the Hampstead area London NW3. Those are just some of the journeys that come up when you hit the ‘Browse Rides’ button on Dani’s website masterpiece.

But unless I’m an employee of JLR or Aston Martin in Gaydon, Ocado in Hatfield or a student in Hampstead the options are not particularly attractive for me.

However, I did try entering ‘Brighton’ in the ‘Where are you going?’ box as encouraged and up came a ride option on each of the five days programme of horse racing at Goodwood at the end of July with pick ups in Hastings, Brighton or Portsmouth for £14.99. In the old days we’d list those trips in a colourful leaflet/brochure called Excursions now you have the fun of entering somewhere you might want to go in a blank box on a screen and see what comes back!

I spotted on the Zeelo twitter feed some excitement a week or so ago about the upcoming Tottenham Hotspur versus Liverpool Champions League final in Madrid. “No need to spend £1,000 on air fares” as it turns out Zeelo have arranged coaches from north London to the match for £299.99 leaving at 0530 and arriving 0600 (the next day obviously!). So far no coaches from Liverpool but you can register an interest and see what the algorithm comes up with.

Dani’s algorithm’s secret is to keep an eye on all sorts of events and monitor chitter chatter or expressions of interest on social media and then marry the two together when it looks as though a coach of paying punters can be mustered. Hire in a coach from a preferred supplier who’s happy to take a guaranteed price irrespective of how many may be on board and away you go.

In the old days you’d stick a chalkboard outside your physical shop window; now you have a virtual shop window available anywhere in the world – indeed Zeelo also have transport interests in South Africa.

Talking of anywhere in the world brings me to Newport and this morning’s commuter trip to Bristol. Apparently Sam and Barney reckon there’ve picked up vibes there’s a gap in the commuter market across the Severn and the Zeelo business model’s the way to fill it.

There’s a choice of two journeys from Newport at either 0645 or 0730 both scheduled to take an hour for the trip across to Bristol with return times offered at 1715 or 1815.

I booked a ride online yesterday morning for the 0730 journey this morning grabbing the first of my sign up ten free rides. I didn’t receive any electronic acknowledgment but could reassuringly see confirmation was recorded whenever I logged on to the website.

A confirmatory text arrived on my mobile phone at 0645 this morning including the driver’s name and registration number of the coach …

….and the coach was impressively already waiting at the departure bus stop alongside Newport station when I arrived at 0715.

It was an eight year old Mercedes Benz Tourismo operated by Creigiau Travel of Cardiff (formerly owned by Clarkes of Sydenham, London). Sadly not quite up to the luxury standards depicted on the Zeelo website but what did surprise me was being liveried in prominent Zeelo branding, something rival Snap doesn’t do, as they use companies with high quality coaches used on other prestigious work when not ‘snapping’.

There was no wi-if, nor usb sockets, no luxury seats, no tables and with 51 seats (albeit spaced in 12 metres) the leg room wasn’t generous. There was a hot water supply to enable free coffee and the usual toilet crammed under that by the centre emergency exit.

We were expecting six passengers but by our 0730 departure time only four of us were on board. Our friendly driver made a call to base and I guess was told to give it five minutes as we left spot on 0735 with two no shows (the problem of giving free rides presumably).

Whilst the quality of the coach interior may have been underwhelming the smooth congestion free ride was excellent and I was impressed as we joined the M4 just outside Newport after ten minutes at 0745…

…went over the second Severn Crossing five minutes later at 0755…

…the start of the M32 at 0805…

…Cabot Circus at 0815, just forty minutes after leaving Newport…

…and alongside the walkway through to Temple Meads at 0820: a ride time of 45 minutes.

Using the new bus lane on the M32 approach into Bristol probably saved us around 5-10 minutes but otherwise we encountered no congestion along the peak hour motorway journey at all.

GWR run an hourly train service between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads taking 38 minutes so there’s not much difference in journey time and Zeelo definitely wins if you work in the Cabot Circus area of Bristol which is a fair walk or bus ride from the station.

Zeelo’s ‘£70 for ten rides’ price is comparable with GWR’s weekly season price of £67.40 which of course doesn’t offer the flexibility of carrying forward rides not used.

If you’re a truly committed Zeelo fan and trust their longevity in the market you can grab yourself a 100 ride package for £540 working out at just £5.40 per ride.

Railcard holders can get discounts on the full whack GWR day return price of £15.80 which with my Senior Railcard would reduce to £10.45 so attractively cheaper than £14 with Zeelo. But most commuters aren’t Railcard holders so Zeelo have got good comparability on both price and journey time with rail.

GWR are upping their game on train quality as new trains cascade stock to other lines including the Cardiff-Bristol-Portsmouth route so it may be less of a squeeze on board in the future but with Zeelo you’re guaranteed a seat and so all the more reason I would suggest to make sure that’s a comfortable ‘luxury’ seat as promoted on the website.

Aside from myself, this morning’s three fellow passengers are obviously not going to make Sam, Barney and Dani a profitable future and their hope must be to build the business; and that, as always, is the hard part. Building a website and even an algorithm is one thing, finding a sustainable profitable market in the coach commuting business and building that up is quite another.

Creating product awareness and turning that into a committed purchase is as hard to achieve online as in the physical world of selling travel. It costs a lot of money.

For now, as explained on Zeelo’s website, after initial “angel investment” a recent injection of £4.25 million into the business by sustainability investor ETF Partners whose managing partner Patrick Sheehan has joined the Zeelo board is giving the team optimism and confidence.

Zeelo are on a mission to reduce car use for commuting. Whereas traditionally transport entrepreneurs would probably have splashed £4.25 million on some shiny new coaches the Zeelo team are investing it in ‘doubling down on our data led approach; investing in product and technology; investing in new vehicle technology including EVs and AVs; investing in the onboard experience; and continuing putting our customers first”.

Good luck Zeelo, hopefully this time your team won’t lose.

Roger French

Farewell HST

Saturday 18th May 2019

IMG_6884.jpgToday’s a poignant day on the Great Western. The much loved HST trains are running their last journeys across the network to and from London as new Hitachi IET Class 800 and 802 trains now reign supreme.

Whereas last week’s LNER Azuma launch was met with much excitement for the future, somehow GWR’s similar trains haven’t made the same impact since they first appeared in late 2017.

IMG_6974.jpgAs I write this blogpost on board the very last HST which left Penzance for Paddington at 0650 this morning, many overheard comments are “it’s all very sad”, “end of an era”, “going to really miss them” and “have you signed the online petition to bring back the buffet; the Azuma has got one”.

IMG_6925.jpgIt’s been forty years down here on the West Country line to Penzance so for a whole generation of Millennials HSTs are all they’ve known so nostalgic regrets are understandable. All the more so as the ambiance of the new Hitachi trains is more Championship than Premier League in First Class.

IMG_6875.jpgTo bid my fond farewells I treated myself to the very last ever HST Pullman lunchtime dining experience on yesterday’s 1303 Paddington to Plymouth.

IMG_6877.jpgAlthough this splendid tradition is continuing on the IET it just won’t be the same as sitting in a sumptuous leather seat in what feels like an exclusive top class restaurant with just 17 covers and five attentive staff.

IMG_6878.jpgIt took well over an hour for my veggie main course to appear but it didn’t matter at all as there was lots to see out of the window as the journey continued westwards and with such a small kitchen it would be impossible to serve an awkward diner like me avoiding alcohol, skipping the first course and out of sync with the flow of other diners. And it was certainly worth the wait.

IMG_E6911.jpgThe Acorn Squash was absolutely delicious and came with complimentary bottled spring water and bread rolls; and of course it’s all served silver service style with decent crockery, cutlery and napkins.

IMG_6912.jpgI was so impressed I had to seek out the chef to pass on my thanks and in so doing was aghast to see the limited facilities from which she produced around two dozen amazing three course meals over the previous two hours. A quite remarkable achievement.

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From Plymouth, after an hour’s break, I continued down to Penzance on a nine coach IET Class 802.

IMG_6930.jpgThis journey, the 1403 from Paddington, had originally been scheduled for an HST but was swapped for the new replacement and provided an interesting contrast. It was my first journey through Cornwall on an IET and in fact my first journey on a GWR nine coach version having previously only enjoyed trips on the five coach trains (and doubled up as ten coach) to Bristol and South Wales.IMG_6944.jpg

The internal layout unsurprisingly is very similar to the Azumas and the same comments apply to luggage storage and seats as I made in yesterday’s blog.

IMG_6945.jpgI did get a peek inside the ‘end of carriage’ large lockable luggage and cycle stores which I’m sure are going to be kept very busy.

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IMG_6950.jpgAside from Menheniot the 1725 journey from Plymouth is an all stations stopper right through Cornwall and it was interesting to hear the auto announcements programmed to emphasise which doors will or will not open bespoke to each coach at short platform stations (something the HSTs weren’t able to do) supplemented by the Train Manager’s announcements.

Another noteworthy improvement is the train no longer being delayed while the Train Manager or station staff have to walk up and down the platform manually shutting all the carriage doors which together with the much improved acceleration away from stations meant we were well able to keep to time as we journeyed through Cornwall; something I’d not often experienced before.

IMG_6953.jpgIndeed, we arrived in Penzance a minute early.

IMG_6954.jpgAnd so to my last HST journey from Penzance all the way through to Paddington at 0650 this morning. Lots of cameras; lots of waving; smiles and sighs and many memories shared.

IMG_6972.jpgI’ll miss the clunk clicking as an HST pulls away from stations; the sound of those doors being slammed shut; the door windows which can be opened and shut; the draught howling back into the carriage because someone’s pointing a camera out of the open window; the late running in Cornwall (we arrived in Plymouth around ten minutes down) …. the happy ambiance of it all.

IMG_6969.jpgIt’s a shame progress means we seem to be losing an air of quality as new trains come on stream but the good news is it’s largely being driven by the need to increase seating capacity because trains are becoming more and more popular. More seats per carriage is an inevitable consequence on long distance journeys as well as commuter trains.

I was never a fan of the high backed seats First Great Western crammed into an unfriendly layout in Standard Class in their HSTs a few years ago (which continue in the shortened 4 coach ‘Castle’ sets in the West Country and round to Cardiff pictured below) and much prefer the new IETs albeit with their less comfortable seats.

IMG_6929.jpgBut the days of luxury in First Class sadly now seem to be passing into a bygone era as twenty percent more seats are added per carriage. But I’m sure people said the same when steam was replaced with diesel and in the years to come we’ll get to love the IETs and Azumas for their modern approach to train travel.

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IMG_6948.jpgBack on the last HST journey this morning from Penzance we lost a bit more time due to slow running through Starcross arriving Exeter St Davids 15 minutes late. Through Tiverton Parkway and Taunton we got extremely busy and there were the usual issues over passengers with seat reservations assuming an IET layout and naturally couldn’t find their expected seats (no First Class coach E on an HST).

More positively we were twelve minutes late into Westbury at 1112 instead of 1100 which would have meant passengers just missing the connection for the Southampton train due to leave at 1111. A shout out to GWR’s Swindon Control who held the Southampton train for a few minutes until our arrival allowing passengers to make the connection – something you perceive rarely happens these days.

IMG_7039.jpgWe continued to be around twelve minutes down towards London, picking up a large contingent of passengers at Reading (standing room only from there) and where we passed an equally large number of photographers recording this historic last day of HSTs which have been synonymous for so many years with that town. (I well remember taking my first HST ride when at Reading University in 1974/5).

It’s now 1227 and we’ve just arrived into Paddington after a splendid five hour and 37 minute journey which I’ll also well remember … perhaps not for as long as 45 years this time, that would be pushing life expectancy too far, but hopefully for many years to come.

Farewell HST and thanks.

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Roger French

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